Public service ahead of businesses on gender equality, more to be done on diversity

By Jackson Graham

March 11, 2022

parliament house, camberra
Positive self-expression is a powerful weapon against the limits of racism. (Jason Bennee/Adobe)

The public sector is ahead of the private sector when it comes to equal opportunities for women, according to three experts, but there’s still much work to do to improve diversity. 

Speaking at a Mandarin Talks on Thursday following International Women’s Day, author and activist Wendy McCarthy said that in her experience, public sector boards were better resourced with information for directors and training. 

“There’s no better training in terms of accountability as a director than working in a public sector outfit; it has every single ingredient to grow into good governance,” McCarthy said.

Victorian multicultural commission chair Viv Nguyen told the event that labour-force data showed 36% of workers had at least one parent born overseas but in the Victorian Public Sector this figure was 18%. 

“I think there’s a lot we could do in the public sector in regards to the workplace culture,” Nguyen said. 

The water-cooler conversation doesn’t always have to be about Aussie Rules. It doesn’t have to be about cricket. It could be about ‘I attended a Vietnamese New Year celebration on the weekend’.” 

She questioned why boards couldn’t be extended to have more women. “Why do we just have two, why do we have to fight for two positions on a board that are designated for women, why can’t we consider 10 board positions?” 

Journalist and advocate Virginia Haussegger said while representation among the higher ranks of the public service was improving for women, the sector needed to strive to be the exemplar for the rest of the nation. 

By and large, I think the Australian public sector is extraordinarily good at diversity and inclusion,” Haussegger said. 

She has seen progress – such as the APS’ Gender Equality Strategy for 2021-26 – since first examining the issue of women’s representation among senior executives in 2010. 

“It was very gratifying to see in 2016 the first APS gender equality strategy launched by the prime minister. It’s good to see the new one updated, but It’s not perfect,” Haussegger said. 

“It depends on the department’s leadership as to how seriously they treat their gender equality. Certainly, some secretaries have been phenomenally taking it very, very seriously, and others not so.

“And most importantly, let’s not forget the defunding of various areas of the public sector which have caused a squeeze on diversity.”


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